Our children, and now our grandchildren, have been attending yeshivas for many years. They go to school just as we did. They complain about getting up too early, getting home too late, and having too much homework, just like we did.
For all practical purposes, with the yomim tovim a couple of weeks behind us, the school year is just about reaching its cruising altitude, so to speak.
A few weeks ago, we received an invitation in the mail to an event at Yeshiva of South Shore marking what they called “Grandparents Day.”
It sounded kind of straightforward and simple, and on the surface it was. As we arrived at the yeshiva, we observed people streaming into the building from all directions, a long line forming at the entrance. Some were young grandparents, but most of the men were gray-haired, and a glance at the scene made it easy to conclude that this was not a PTA meeting. There was something special happening.
Just a few decades ago, when we were those yeshiva kids, a day like this was impossible, because, to get right to the point, many of us were descendants of people who were systematically murdered by the Nazi killing machine during the Holocaust. For those who managed to survive, it was the end of one ordeal but the beginning of another.
So last Sunday, Grandparents Day at South Shore, was not just what it might seem — two generations, with the middle one uninvited or missing. It was a day for us to assert ourselves.
About 20 or so years ago, I was invited to attend a gathering of those who survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The theme of these annual events was always “Mir Zenin Duh,” or “We Are Here.”
Those words describe a tragic and complex situation — always as poignant as they were impressive. That’s what occurred to me as I parked my car and watched the throngs of mostly grandparents make their way into the yeshiva building. Not to minimize the great tragedy of the Holocaust, but many years have passed, and in the aftermath of an extreme experience, time has taken its toll. It still makes an impression and it still conjures up pain, but, still, it was a long time ago.
One of the speakers, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, son of the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky, began the program by welcoming the overflow crowd to the nicely appointed school gym. By the time we arrived, not only were all the tables filled with the guests, but practically the whole standing area between the tables and along the walls under the basketball hoops were also lined with grandparents.
Later, as we traversed the hallways to our grandchildren’s various classes, Rav Mordechai told me that he had not really expected such a major showing of grandparents, parents who brought older grandparents, and even some younger grandparents who brought their parents, the students’ great-grandparents.
He added that it was not lost on anyone involved in planning that the event was a day after the annual observance of Kristallnacht, which took place 81 years ago, in 1938. Kristallnacht has long been considered a catalyst, one of the spontaneous and violent events, that served to inflame the hateful passions against Jews in Germany and in Austria.
Kristallnacht was a massive pogrom carried out against Jews throughout Nazi Germany. The German police and military looked on without any intervention. Can you just imagine something happening today that requires a police response and the police either do not respond or simply look on indifferently?
Kristallnacht, which means “Night of Broken Glass,” was named for the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.
But this was just a breakfast at a yeshiva in Hewlett more than 80 years later. What can this lavish breakfast for much more than 500 people have to do with Kristallnacht? The straightforward answer to that is: everything.
When I was a student, four or five decades ago, an event like this would have not made any sense, and if it had been planned, it would have been poorly attended. Because of who we were, because of our history as a people, I knew few families that could say they had grandparents. When you contemplate why that was — because so many of them were murdered in Europe during the war — it is chilling and fills one with terrible fright.
Those gathered were not survivors, but, as Elie Wiesel was wont to say, children and even grandchildren of survivors are, in a sense, victims themselves. He writes about the uniqueness of the subsequent generations, and maintains that this is perhaps a situation where “we can be victims of something we never experienced.”
So you see, there truly isn’t anything in Jewish life, even all these years later, which is not fraught with the undercurrent of our history as a people. Not even a breakfast in a yeshiva in Hewlett on a crisp but clear Sunday morning. Every bite of those wraps, some filled with lox and others with salmon, every cup of coffee, and every “Shalom Aleichem” said to people from parts of the Five Towns and other areas whom you would not usually get to see, was chock full of meaning.
It said in its own way that yes, mir zenin duh, we are very much here, thank G-d. We were devastated, almost obliterated, but now young children are learning Torah, and, perhaps even more importantly, so many were able to say that if only for one day they were able to do so with their Bubbys and Zaides standing at their side.
The beauty and the growth of our communities, baruch Hashem, wherever they may be, is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold. May it continue unabated, with strength and life forever.